03/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Future of Farming And Food: Corporate Culture Infiltrates Eco Farm

Last week I went to California for the 2010 Eco Farm Conference--a three-day organic farming extravaganza featuring big names (and big influences of the organic agriculture movement) such as Wes Jackson, Frances Moore Lappé, Deputy Security of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, and a ton of folks who are part of an ever-growing and expanding movement for healthy food and a sustainable planet. But make no mistake about it--this wasn't no utopian hippie fest (at least not all of it.)

I came to Eco Farm looking for some inspiration, but also as a skeptic. As both an editor of farming and food books and a young farmer myself, I was psyched about the three days of nonstop, grad-school-ish conversation and networking, but worried about the elitism of the "organic" movement. And sure, there was a lot of self-referencing, but you learned about people, and fast. At workshops: "I farm X, Y and Z. What brings you here?" At meals: "I farm X, Y and Z. What brings you here?" At the dance and the movie screening and on the way to the toilet: "I farm X, Y and Z. What brings you here?" Turns out, though, most of the people there were hard-working, sun-up-to-sun-down folks looking towards a future where people have more power over their lives.

At Eco Farm I met an entire family (three generations!) of organic walnut farmers, and a couple of "hermetic hippies" who had a small but working farm, and ran an illegal underground market/CSA (and refused to get certified, because it's too expensive.) I met a Canadian fellow who salvages cedar from beaches and splits it along the wood grain for custom furniture. I met a lot of women farmers. I met permaculturists and rice growers, orchardists and garden educators. Old timers and newcomers. Farmers and foodies. (And a lone conservative who came to the last banquet as someone's date and cheered the new Massachusetts senator--yikes.) Indeed, after three days of much-needed West Coast rain showers and farm-fresh meals in a dining hall filled with more than 500 like-minded, hard-working, truly Democractic-thinking, healthy farmer folks, I was frothing at the mouth thinking about razor hoes, hoophouses, perennial vegetables and the power of food to heal national wounds.

I expected the hippie contingent. Hell, people who were farming organic in the '60s and '70s are basically the backbone of this country's movement. I expected the social justice activists bringing some much needed perspective on the politics of food, and what kinds of people (wealthier, whiter, landowning) have access to healthy meals. (This is, in fact, one of the most important aspects of the food movement in general: stopping hunger, democratizing food and redistributing power.) I even expected the unfortunate and veiled cultural appropriation that subconsciously permeated the fashion and spiritual energy of the retreat. (Which is to say, yes, I oiled my feet in a yoga class and dance-chanted to my Cherokee ancestors from the North and South.) What I didn't expect, however, was the dominating corporate influence among the home-growers and anarchist farmers. I didn't expect to leave the conference feeling deflated and powerless after days of uplifting, anti-corporate brainstorming. Because Mother Earth wasn't the only thing watering the soil at Eco Farm 2010. Big business, too, came to rain on the parade.

Take, for example, the new administration of the Asilomar Conference Center, campy resort and host of the Eco Farm conference since its beginnings. In the past year, the place was bought by Aramark, a food and facilities provider supplying businesses, courts, prisons, schools and all sorts of other corporate institutions. The leaders of Eco Farm were really pissed about the new management: They didn't get into too many details, but suffice it to say, the conference may be moved to another site next year. And so it began: the opening plenary was rife with anti-corporate sentiment, and with good reason. Because, for one, with the rise of big business we've seen the rise in world hunger. The myth of "green" and "good" big business hangs over society like smog.

In fact, most of the conversation at Eco Farm was focused on the power of the organic movement to change the way the country treats its roots--which is food, and people--and yet the delicious local farm-donated meals we were eating were forked from the same plates that serve garbage to the incarcerated, a paradox that seemed fitting considering the theme of the conference itself: "Where the Future is Planted." Because, it may be planted in the produce aisles of the Wal-Mart that put your family feed store out of business. It's about exclusion masked as inclusion.


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